This week, I attended a D.C. Collaborative Law Group meeting. Our guest speaker, Dr. Debra Nackman, provided suggestions on how clients might think about extra-marital affairs and divorce, from the child’s point of view. Prior to attending this talk, I assumed that the issue of the affair should never be raised or discussed with the children. However, Dr. Nackman suggested that in many situations the children are going to find out about it. They may hear rumors in the community, overhear the parents talking with each other or with friends, or simply figure it out. In those circumstances, the children may benefit from learning about the affair from the parents. When should this subject be approached with children? How should the parents approach it? Dr. Nackman offered some guidelines. While I recommend that families work with a conflict coach or child specialist to develop the best approach for each family, these guidelines may be helpful to discuss with your counselor, coach or child specialist.
- Contain the affair within the relationship. If possible, keep the affair private and between the parents. However, when the parents decide that the children need to learn something about the affair, minimizing the details may be best.
- Minimize the harm. You don’t want for the children to hear about the affair from outside the family. If there is any chance of that, it is best work together as parents to communicate the appropriate information in the least destructive manner possible.
- Work together. As difficult as it is, a joint narrative provided by the parents together may be beneficial for the children.
- Restrict the role of the child. Just because the child learns something about the affair, the child should not be a confident for a parent. The parents need to have adult support through adult friends, professionals or family members, not the parents’ children.
- Reduce negativity. As in most circumstances, parents should not portray themselves as the victim or the other parent as the villain. They should avoid talking negatively about the other parent.
- Support the child’s relationships. Validate and support the child’s relationship with both parents.
- Consider the child’s age. Very young children will need very little, if any information. Older children may need more. Tailor your conversations to the children’s ages.
- Accept responsibility. The parent who is engaged in the affair may need to accept and community responsibility for their part in the affair. The other parent should take responsibility for their own wellbeing and assure the children that they will be okay.
- Allow for feelings. The children will have feelings. Those feelings may be strong and negative. The parents should not try to talk the children out of their feelings, but at the same time, they should not add fuel to the fire.
- Delay introducing the new relationship. The parent in the new relationship should put that relationship on the back burner for six months to a year to allow the children to become the priority and work on establishing a new normal with the parent child relationships.
- Allow for differences. Kids will move on differently. Be open to that and to the expectations and needs that the children may have.
If you are in the process of a separation and have questions on how to talk to your child, you should meet with a mental health professional or a conflict coach to help you and your partner figure out how to best guide your child through this difficult process. If you are considering separation or divorce and would like to meet with me to discuss mediation or collaborative law, please contact me and I will be happy to provide you with information about how these processes may minimize the damage to your children.